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By Excess Hollywood | June 13, 2007

Jello Biafra, singer of the Dead Kennedys, once asked (and I’m paraphrasing here) which was responsible for more deaths: music or “”Top Gun”? The implication wasn’t that music or a movie killed anyone directly. It was that a movie, which was very pro military, caused people to enlist, which in turn led to their untimely deaths, and music doesn’t have that kind of track record. I think he has a point.

In mass media studies there is something called the hypodermic needle theory. It states that messages in mass media have an immediate, direct and powerful effect upon the intended audience. Hitler’s Germany and the “”War of the Worlds” radio broadcast are often used as examples. I believe the theory is more than a little flawed, though people who believe movies lead to violence obviously feel otherwise. The hypodermic needle theory is wrong simply because there are those who don’t buy every message the media puts forth, but there is some grain of truth to the theory that does warrant examination.

There is a certain segment of society that is very susceptible to messages it gets from outside sources. Usually this segment will only act out in positive ways (such as seeing a patriotic film and feeling the need to enlist in the military), but a smaller portion will often act in a negative way due to some sort of mental illness. Positive actions usually win out over negative behavior, however, simply because people like to think they are doing good and not everyone has mental problems. (And those who have problems are usually going to act in negative ways without any kind of catalyst from motion pictures.) That’s why people get compelled to save energy after watching “”An Inconvenient Truth,” but not stalk co-eds after seeing “”Black Christmas.” In turn, that makes movies with a positive message far more dangerous than violent films. Why? The military and government.

It’s no secret that the U.S. government and the military have their hands in the Hollywood cookie jar. The public relations industry became what it is thanks to the military and the government. Movies are just one tool they use, but they are a very effective tool. Get young people cheering Tom Cruise in the Air Force, and you’ll most likely see some sort of rise in recruitment numbers. The military knows this, which is why it grants certain filmmakers access that isn’t available to someone like Michael Moore. If the only thing that comes out of that access is a pro military film that does a nice bit of business, so be it. If, on the other hand, it resonates with people and they enlist — score. If those people happen to die while serving, so be it. Eventually there will be others to take their place.

That’s why positive messages in film can not only be misleading but also dangerous. They lull people into a false sense of security and give them a deluded sense of hope. When people act on those feelings they may find themselves in a situation quite unlike what they saw on film, and that can be a real eye opener. I’m not saying all people are blind sheep, but when you realize that only five percent of the population is what is known as “”leader material,” that leaves 95% who may be wide open to propaganda.

If someone sees “”Carrie” and kills her mother, the media will trot out all sorts of experts who will blame the movie, look to assign responsibility (both moral and criminal) and basically slam the state of horror films. If someone who enlisted because of some military film dies in combat, nobody ever questions the intent of movies like “”Top Gun” and “”Black Hawk Down” (not a pro military movie in the most obvious sense, but it does have a slant). The subject is never broached, and that’s a mistake. Yes, it’s shocking and a shame if someone imitates a movie and kills someone, but what if they are inspired by a movie to get killed? Where is the outcry there?

I’m not calling for censorship of films or even for the government to keep its hands out of Hollywood. It’s up to viewers to be smarter. I know that’s a tall order, but that’s the only way propaganda can be eradicated. If we were smarter, we wouldn’t blame movies for crimes, and we wouldn’t fall for jingoism, but we do both and we need to work on that.

Biafra’s point was right on. It made sense, and it bears some examination. If we as a society want to make filmmakers responsible for deaths, we can’t morally assign some deaths less weight than others. Death is death. If a movie gets someone killed, it shouldn’t matter what the movie’s subject matter was. On the other hand, if we want to hold people responsible for their own actions, we have to start coming to terms with the fact that propaganda is used by the government, that movies really shouldn’t be rated by some clandestine board, and people should be able to watch what they want to watch. I want to live in a more responsible society, not one that assigns blame to easy targets and scapegoats; I want accountability to responsibility, not arbitrary finger pointing.

So go rent “”Iron Eagle.” Just don’t get yourself killed afterward.

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  1. Felix Vasquez Jr. says:

    One thing I don’t understand in this article is that you somehow allude that Hollywood is really appealing to the government, who has their hands in the cookie pot.

    While it’s true the government has its hands in film, and the MPAA, why can’t it be that Hollywood makes these fantastical military films to cash in?

    In a previous article you stated that Hollywood making religious films isn’t them buying into religion, it’s just them cashing in.

    So, why wouldn’t they be cashing in on military, as they do religion?

    I don’t really understand that particular.

  2. Professor Tom says:

    alternatively, you could just come out and say that you’re anti-war.

    Your article suggests that there are not many films that rise against authority or that the government is censoring films so that it only gets it message out. That’s wrong on both counts and I’ll tell you why:

    First of all, why would the government censor films in a day and age when the term “Freedom of Speech” is so glibly thrown around, particularly in a day and age where computers allow for such things as blogging? Allow me to quote a friend:

    All of us who blog are publishers. In the past, the average Joe had no means of expressing oneself to a wide audience.

    Information was passed down to us by various media companies and what the public sees in the pages or broadcasts of these information gatekeepers depended on the editorial control of employees of said companies whose first loyalty is to the company and its shareholders.

    This is a new world we live in where information is available without being filtered through corporate copy editors and anyone can self-publish content for free. As long as your writing can keep people interested you’ve got your soapbox.

    Ergo, there are as many opinions available as there are people on the internet…on any given issue. Some of them are status-quo others are not.

    There is another angle to this that you failed to mention. How could we possibly discuss movies and filmmaking without talking about the key factor in the process: money? Without money, you don’t hire actors, you don’t buy film stock and you don’t put a product in the theaters. Somebody has to pay for all of these movies; those people are called producers. Producers only invest in movies if they know they will turn a profit or at least have the potential to turn one. (EXCEPTION: The investor is very good friends/directly related to the filmmaker.) So if producers don’t want to loose money, they are going to stock a product that sells.

    Take a look at the Clinton administration. What kind of films did we get in the 90’s? Films about prosperity, sex and (when he bombed an aspirin factory went to war in Kosovo) a few war pictures. Now that we are at war and terrorism is a reality, what kind of films are we predominately getting? Fantasy/comic/super heroes and war.

    People (meaning the people in the audiences, not necessarily filmmakers) go to the movies to escape reality, if only for a little while. This is called suspension of disbelief. If your country is at war, what kind of film would you rather want to see: a war film that shows your country as victorious or your country as defeated? Which movies do you think producers are more readily going to get behind in a time of war for their own monetary interests, much less the interests of the government?

    These are points to ponder…

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